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COVID testing site pulls back as panic over testing grows

COVID testing.jpg
Michelle Corum
A representative from the Florida Department of Health Duval County explains to people at the Cuba Hunter Park testing site that they are short staffed and reinforcements are coming from another site to help them.

Jacksonville’s only city-funded, drive-thru COVID testing site is limiting its capacity to 150 rapid tests a day —administered on a first-come, first-served basis. 

The operators of the Neptune Beach site, Telescope Health, announced the new limit on social media Monday, after it had to temporarily shut down last week because of traffic issues near the former Kmart on Atlantic Boulevard. 

The situation reflects the crush of demand for COVID testing as the omicron variant pushes caseloads to record highs day after day.

Legions of people are parading to stores and testing sites, often leaving frustrated.

The Neptune Beach site reached capacity five minutes after opening Tuesday, according to WJCT News partner The Florida Times-Union.

The city's chief administrative officer, Brian Hughes, told a City Council committee Monday that the Neptune Beach site is running out of city money for testing.

"They're going to be approaching the end of the funding related to that, and we may be coming to you next Tuesday with a solution to get more money to that operation," Hughes said.

The city allocated $4 million of American Rescue Plan funds toward operating five, free testing sites.

Demand for rapid tests also is spiking at the two walk-up COVID testing sites operated by the Duval County Health Department, according to epidemiologist Chowdhury Bari.

"Between our two testing sites, the Emmet Reed and the Cuba Hunter, on Monday we had 678 tests, on Tuesday 752, and on Wednesday night 936," Bari said.

Yasmine Ahmed was at the Cuba Hunter Community Center test site on the Southside on Monday afternoon. She said she had been waiting for hours to get tested.

“We’re all originally from New York. They have testing sites everywhere,” Ahmed said. “But here they make it so impossible to get tested, you know? People are really sick; there’s people dying.”

Florida’s governor and surgeon general took issue Monday with mass testing, blaming President Joe Biden for promising to distribute 500 million at-home coronavirus tests to Americans.

“We need to unwind this … planning and living one’s life around testing,” Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo
said during a news conference at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale. “Without it, we’re going to be sort of stuck in the same cycle. So, it’s really time for people to be living, to make the decisions they want regarding vaccination, to enjoy the fact that many people have natural immunity. And to unwind this sort of preoccupation with only COVID as determining the boundaries and constraints and possibilities of life.”

DeSantis also pointed to what he characterized as frivolous testing for COVID-19.

“What you are seeing is there are people going to the drug stores, buying all these tests. They’ll go multiple times per week to the sites and test, without symptoms. That is just going to contribute to some of the crunch that you are seeing,” DeSantis said.

Ladapo said an upcoming shift in the approach to testing would put an emphasis on higher-risk people, though he did not give specifics of the plan. He suggested that the new guidance “doesn’t restrict access to testing, but reduces the use of low-value testing and prioritizes high-value testing.”

“So, if your grandmother gets a test, that’s a much more valuable test than the 8-year-old third graders that Los Angeles County is sending in to get weekly testing. The first one is much more likely to change outcomes,” Ladapo said.

A full list of city-run, pharmacy and privately operated testing sites appears on Jacksonville's emergency planning site, JaxReady.

The testing shortage comes as COVID cases in Duval are shooting up, and hospitalizations are following suit. The county had more than 8,000 COVID cases last week, compared with fewer than 300 at the start of December. 

The latest available data show Duval’s case counts have almost hit summer’s delta-variant high. 

Hughes, the city's chief administrative officer, told City Council members Monday that hospitalizations are spiking citywide as well. 

"We were down in the teens to 30s with COVID-positive inpatients that come through hospitals. That number is now back up in the two hundreds," Hughes said. "The current occupancy is about 80% to 81%, but they've through the course of this pandemic obviously gotten more skilled at expanding and contracting spaces that they use."

Hughes says Jacksonville is not planning for bed shortages yet. 

Meanwhile, vaccination rates have remained pretty stagnant — just 62% of eligible Duval residents have gotten at least one shot, compared to 71% statewide. 

Information from the News Service of Florida and Michelle Corum of WJCT News was used in this report.

Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.